Tuned into the news channel yesterday night to watch a documentary on the Aryan Brotherhood. For a minute there I thought, "Wait a minute! Nelson Mandela was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood? That can't be right, can it?"
Willkommen im Schwitzkasten der Halbbildung!
The better a model is at identifying a causal effect, the less likely it is the effect is going to look substantial. That's because of (i) publication bias, (ii) how the world works.
In fact, one side effect of bad quantitative methodologies is that they generate phantom churn, which keeps customers interested. For instance, the marketing research company I worked for made two massive breakthroughs in the 1980s to dramatically more accurate methodologies in the consumer packaged goods sector. Before we put to use checkout scanner data, market research companies were reporting a lot of Kentucky windage. In contrast, we reported actual sales in vast detail. Clients were wildly excited ... for a few years. And then they got kind of bored.In the social sciences - and I would include marketing - there probably are few cases when the effect of X on Y is genuinely zero. Just about everything influences everything else, in a roundabout way. There's a flipside to that: The influence of single factors is usually very small. A core reason for that is that people's personalities and behaviour are pretty stable, which is why the concept "personality" makes sense.
You see, our competitors had previously reported all sorts of exciting stuff to clients: For example, back in the 1970s they'd say: of the two new commercials you are considering, our proprietary methodology demonstrates that Commercial A will increase sales by 30% while Commercial B will decrease sales by 20%.
We'd report in the 1980s: In a one year test of identically matched panels of 5,000 households in Eau Claire and Pittsfield, neither new commercial A nor B was associated with a statistically significant increase in sales of Charmin versus the matched control group that saw the same old Mr. Whipple commercial you've been showing for five years. If you don't believe us, we'll send you all the data tapes and you can look for yourselves.
I recently gave a talk at a large venue to nearly 1,000 people. It seemed to go well but who am I to judge? The experience of giving a speech is radically different from the experience of listening to one. An adrenalin-drenched emotional rollercoaster for a nervous speaker may nevertheless be unbearably tedious for the listeners. A superbly honed performance may produce a sense of suspense, surprise and delight for the audience; the result of many hours of rehearsal and repetition for the speaker. Yet it can be very hard indeed for the speaker to know what worked and what didn’t.
higher density helps reduce street crime in an urban environment in two ways. One is that in a higher density city, any given street is less likely to be empty of passersby at any given time. The other is that if a given patch of land has more citizens, that means it can also support a larger base of police officers. And for policing efficacy both the ratio of cops to citzens and of cops to land matters. Therefore, all else being equal a denser city will be a better policed city.
Not only doesn’t Nagel deliver: he strikes out three times, with three distinct arguments as to why we should reject natural selection in its current, materialist form. Each of the book’s three main thrusts – involving consciousness, theoretical knowledge, and morality – begets a unique species of error. [...]
Teleology is certainly possible, and Nagel is not wrong to ask us to set aside our materialist presuppositions to consider radical alternatives. But he also needs to provide us with good reasons for believing that such radical alternatives are necessary. Nagel is unconvincing on this score, because it is not clear that the we must amend scientific theories to solve philosophical problems, in such a way as to guarantee the maximal intelligibility of the world; or that intelligibility must be linked to probability; or that an evolutionary origin for cognition is self-undermining; or that moral realism and natural selection are incompatible (and if so, that it is the latter rather than the former that must be amended).
Wes Alwan, "Evolution is Rigged! A Review of Thomas Nagel’s 'Mind and Cosmos'", The Partially Examined Life
Nagel never explains why his intuition should count for so much
H. Allen Orr, "Awaiting a New Darwin", The New York Review of Books
The sufficiency of genetic variation to drive natural selection has been a central theme since R A Fisher’s great book, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Nagel, a philosopher, tells us there’s not enough. Big result! But it’s completely unsupported by argument. Nagel says that he would “like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to neo-Darwinism … It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection”. This is just irresponsible. It is simply wrong to adjudicate the probability of mutations by an “untutored reaction of incredulity”.
Mohan Matthen, "Thomas Nagel's Untutored Reaction of Incredulity", The Philosopers Magazine
Are we really supposed to abandon a massively successful scientific research program because Nagel finds some scientific claims hard to square with what he thinks is obvious and “undeniable,” such as his confidence that his “clearest moral…reasonings are objectively valid”? [...]
We may, of course, be wrong in having abandoned teleology and the supernatural as our primary tools for understanding and explaining the natural world, but the fact that “common sense” conflicts with a layman’s reading of popular science writing is not a good reason for thinking so. [...]
Nagel’s arguments against reductionism are quixotic, and his arguments against naturalism are unconvincing. He aspires to develop “rival alternative conceptions” to what he calls the materialist neo-Darwinian worldview, yet he never clearly articulates this rival conception, nor does he give us any reason to think that “the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.”
Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, "Do You Only Have a Brain? On Thomas Nagel", The Nation
Nowadays, inspired by programs like CSI and NCIS, many students want to become some sort of forensic scientist. The problem is that are very few such jobs. I have heard that there are something like 20 times more forensics graduates than openings. This is not really caused by an overall shortage of crimes, more by a shortage of interesting crimes. When some dirtbag stabs his old lady, after beating the shit out of her for years, caught while still gripping the bloodstained murder weapon, who needs CSI?
The subjects were some 8,500 middle-aged men with established heart problems. Two-thirds of them were randomly assigned to take one of the five drugs and the other third a placebo. Because one of the drugs, clofibrate, lowered cholesterol levels, the researchers had high hopes that it would ward off heart disease. But when the results were tabulated after five years, clofibrate showed no beneficial effect. The researchers then considered the possibility that clofibrate appeared to fail only because the subjects failed to faithfully take their prescriptions.As it turned out, those men who said they took more than 80 percent of the pills prescribed fared substantially better than those who didn’t. Only 15 percent of these faithful “adherers” died, compared with almost 25 percent of what the project researchers called “poor adherers.” This might have been taken as reason to believe that clofibrate actually did cut heart-disease deaths almost by half, but then the researchers looked at those men who faithfully took their placebos. And those men, too, seemed to benefit from adhering closely to their prescription: only 15 percent of them died compared with 28 percent who were less conscientious. “So faithfully taking the placebo cuts the death rate by a factor of two,” says David Freedman, a professor of statistics at the University of California, Berkeley. “How can this be? Well, people who take their placebo regularly are just different than the others. The rest is a little speculative. Maybe they take better care of themselves in general. But this compliance effect is quite a big effect.”
Indeed, if you ask the more skeptical epidemiologists in the field what diet and lifestyle factors have been convincingly established as causes of common chronic diseases based on observational studies without clinical trials, you’ll get a very short list: smoking as a cause of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, sun exposure for skin cancer, sexual activity to spread the papilloma virus that causes cervical cancer and perhaps alcohol for a few different cancers as well.
The rate of hospital admissions for cycling related head injuries in Canada among young people decreased from 17.0 to 4.9 per 100 000 person years between 1994 and 2008 (fig 1⇓). In provinces that implemented helmet legislation, the rate decreased steeply between 1994 and 2003, the time over which legislation was implemented, from 15.9 to 7.3 per 100 000 person years, corresponding to a 54.0% (95% confidence interval 48.2% to 59.8%) reduction. In provinces and territories that did not implement helmet legislation, the rate of admissions for cycling related head injuries also decreased between 1994 and 2003, but to a lesser degree. The reduction in provinces without legislation was 33.2% (23.3% to 43.0%), corresponding to a decrease from 19.1 to 12.9 per 100 000 person years. Among adults, the rate of admissions for cycling related head injuries was low in all provinces and across all study years. Between 1994 and 2003, the rate of head injuries in adults in provinces with helmet legislation decreased by 26.2% (16.0% to 36.3%), a reduction from 3.0 to 2.2 per 100 000 person years, compared with a negligible increase in rates in provinces and territories with no legislation, from 2.7 to 2.8 per 100 000 person years.
Based on the historical record, it appears Johann Georg Elser was the ultimate unmediated man. Though obviously a talented craftsman, he could not successfully work his way through the social process of his apprenticeship as a lathe operator. Then, when his wife gave birth to his child, he failed to marry her.
Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to have been a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of his age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the growing share of young men in their 30s who were living craftsmen's existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.
If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of Nazi society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and Führer. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.
This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of pacifism that were blossoming in his fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of warmongers, the strong belief that military hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to peace, the assumption that human lives have value.
It’s logical, given this background and mind-set, that Elser would sacrifice his career to assassinate Hitler. Even if he did not publicize any manifesto explaining his rationale, he was bound to be horrified by what he saw as a coming war. And, of course, he was right that there was a war coming.
But war was not the only danger facing the country. Another was the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who were so individualistic in their outlook that they had no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.
This was not a danger Elser was addressing. In fact, he made everything worse.
For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to the Führer. By deciding to unilaterally assassinate Hitler, Elser betrayed all of these things.
He betrayed honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity. As a German citizen, he was bound by the Führer's will. He rose up against that will.
He betrayed the cause of peaceful government. Every time there is an assassination attempt like this, the powers that be get a little more enraged.
He betrayed the German state. The Führer did not unite the German people under him so that some solitary 36-year-old could make unilateral decisions about who should be Führer. Snowden self-indulgently undermined the will of the people, putting his own preferences above everything else.
Elser faced a moral dilemma. On the one hand, he was convinced that war was imminent. On the other hand, he had certain commitments as a citizen, as a member of the German people. Sometimes assassins have to assassinate. The situation is so grave that it demands they violate the law.
But before they do, you hope they will interrogate themselves closely and force themselves to confront various barriers of resistance. Is the situation so grave that it’s worth betraying your loyalty to the Führer, circumventing the established decision-making procedures, unilaterally causing a death that can never be undone?
Judging by his comments recorded in the interrogation protocols, Elser was obsessed with the danger of war but completely oblivious to his betrayals and toward the damage he did to social arrangements and the invisible bonds that hold them together.
Joseph Pollini, another John Jay College professor, said that one possibility was that there were fewer police officers on patrol in some metropolitan areas that have cut spending sharply in recent years because of the recession.“You’re dealing with depleted police resources,” he said of budget cuts that have caused a reduction in the size of nearly every urban police department.
OLS can tell us about correlations in data, but won't be able to say much about causality. IV regressions turn observational data into a pseudo-experiment.For example, suppose that we had data on courses taken and earnings, as in the study you cite above. Suppose simple OLS told us that people who take math courses earn more. That is fine as far as it goes, but we really want to know if it is just that smarter people take math courses, or that the math course itself increases earnings. OLS isn't going to help, but a good IV will.Suppose that due to a bad pineapple, the pina colada mix at a mathematics department picnic in one high school was poisoned. Half of the mathematics faculty was laid up in the hospital for a semester. Many planned math courses were not offered that year. Presumably, the only way the pina colada disaster affected the future earnings of students is through the courses they were able to take. The exogenous variation in mathematics courses available creates the equivalent of an intent-to-treat experiment. Even the smart students were less likely to take math courses during the pina colada year.Now, as in any statistical procedure, garbage in, garbage out. If the IV is invalid or weak, then the result of the IV regression is totally meaningless.